What Are ROMs And Emulators?

ROMs are video game files that have specific file extensions according to the associated game platform. Their traditional purpose is for maintaining backups of games that you already own. It’s considered “ethical” (and legal) to utilize ROMS for that reason only. Using game files without owning the video game is a grey area.

Emulators are software programs that process ROM files. They emulate game systems. Fortunately, there’s no grey zone around using emulating programs. You can find emulators for almost any game system that’s ever been released. RetroPie installs at least 59 different game emulators by default, although only the 24-bit and lesser game systems are playable with the Raspberry Pi Zero W computing resources.

Hardware Components

Here are the hardware components you will need to setup your own novelty console:

Two optional components you might think about include an anti-static mat and anti-static gloves. This enables you to minimize the risk of static electricity ruining your Pi board and electronic components.

Step 1: Install RetroPie Image File

Software components needed:

  • 7zip (Windows)
  • Win32DiskImg (Windows)
  • RPi-sd card builder v1.2 (Mac OS)

RetroPie is the top-layer OS that activates EmulationStation when you boot the device (the bottom-layer OS is a software called Raspbian). It’s the program that powers the emulators and processes the ROMs. This first step creates the RetroPie boot sector on the microSD drive-by “flashing” it with the downloaded RetroPie image file, using a program called Win32DiskImg with Windows operating system or using a program called RPi-sd card builder v1.2 with a Mac OS. For Linux operating systems, the command “dd” can be used to flash an SD card.

First, make sure that your microSD card is formatted with the FAT/FAT 32 file system. Insert the card into your computer. If you’re using Windows, click on the drive icon and select Format or Quick Format. Choose the FAT/FAT 32 file system. If you’re using Mac OS, launch Disk Utility and then choose Erase for the microSD card. Make sure FAT is the file format. If you’re using Linux, follow the instructions for your distribution that details how to format a storage media.

Go to http://www.retropie.org.uk and download the latest version of RetroPie (version 4.2 as of this writing). The file format should be *.img.gz. If you’re using Windows, unzip the archived file with the extension *.img using 7zip (or another preferred program of your choice). Once you have extracted the file, use either of the programs below to flash the microSD card or software of your choice:

  • Win32DiskImg (Windows)
  • RPi-sd card builder v1.2 (Mac OS)
  • dd command (Linux)

Depending on your computer and operating system, this process can last from a couple of minutes to 15 minutes. But once the process is done, remove the card from your computer and insert it into the storage socket on the Raspberry Pi board. Handle the storage card with anti-static gloves, if you’ve decided to use them, to reduce the risk of static electricity ruining the Pi board or corrupting the RetroPie microSD card.

Step 2: Test the Cords and Hardware

Open the NES Cartridge, Cut Out the Bottom Plastic

It’s time to open the NES cartridge. If you purchased a replica, it should have arrived unscrewed and you only need to remove either side. For original cartridges, you will need to utilize the security driver set to unloosen and take out the screws, then remove the large game board and wires inside.

The next step is to remove the bottom covering. It’s the open slot at the bottom of the cartridge. You will need to cut away both sides so that the section is accessible for the USB female ports.

Box cutter trimming bottom portion of NES retro video game cartridge replica.

Using a box cutter, keep slashing at the bottom edge of the plastic covering until the knife punctures through it. Then keep sawing the rest of the plastic covering until the bottom is detached from the cartridge. Look for the notch that’s pictured below; saw the sides until it’s detached and then repeat on the other side.

Bottom notch of NES retro video game cartridge replica.

(Important note: please remember to protect or move your other hand out of the way while you’re cutting. You can seriously harm yourself. For protecting your other hand, I recommend these gloves.)

Install the Raspberry Pi Zero W Board

Open the NES cartridge. You will notice grey notches extending upward from the surface. They fit the corner hole punctures on the Raspberry Pi board. Install the Raspberry Pi PCB as seen in the picture below:

Inside the Raspberry Pi board, within the NES retro video game cartridge replica.

The vertical orientation is the best way of fitting all the cords in such a small and confining space.

Assemble the Cables

There are three peripheral micro USB ports on the Raspberry Pi Zero board. One port is for HDMI output, clearly labeled by the “HDMI” insignia. The other two ports are for power input and data input and aren’t interchangeable. Look closely at the board and you will see the symbols “PWR” and “DATA”. Make sure that the micro USB female-to-male cord plugs into the “PWR” port, and the USB female-to-male micro USB cord plugs into the “DATA” port. Then plug the mini-HDMI micro USB converter cord into the onboard “HDMI” port.

Test the Assembly

If you have a USB hub, plug its USB cord into the USB port extending from the Pi board. Plug the power supply into the micro USB port extending from the board. This immediately powers the board and begins the boot sequence. Blinking green lights should be visible on the board if the storage card isn’t corrupt, cords connect properly in their respective ports, and the Raspberry Pi PCB functions correctly. If the USB hub contains a light, you should see it as well.

Raspberry Pi board test. Blinking light indicates power.
Test layout of the Raspberry Pi board.

Step 3: Assemble the Console

Cut a small piece of tape (Masking Tape, Gorilla Tape, or Foam Tape) and divide it into multiple thin strips.

Leaving the cords connected to the board, place the female ends of the ports at the accessible tip of the Nintendo cartridge. Test that everything fits by placing the other half of the cartridge on top. Keep trying different arrangements until the other cartridge portion fits. You can glue the ports to the tip at this moment, but I recommend that you first use your tape strips to secure the wire arrangements. After securing the wire arrangements, straighten the ports and glue them to the NES cartridge.

Inside the Raspberry Pi board, within the NES retro video game cartridge replica.

Optional: Attach the USB Hub to the Nintendo Cartridge

(Note: this optional step only works in theory and the actual cartridge installation hasn’t been tested. Follow this step at your own risk.)

Using a screwdriver, remove the USB hub casing.

Grab a pair of pliers and remove the LED light that’s sticking up from the board. Place glue on the side of the hub’s PCB (left or right side), making certain that the glue doesn’t touch the surface or components. Insert the USB hub inside the open space at the tip of the Nintendo cartridge, alongside the other glued USB ports. Push it against one of the sides and hold it there. The goal is to affix the hub to one of the open sides of the cartridges. Release it after a few minutes and let it dry for 10 minutes. Prior to enclosing the NES cartridge, squeeze the glue on top of the ports and then place the other half of the cartridge on top. Test the glue’s strength by inserting and removing USB cables. Once you glue the top of the USB hub ports, it will be nearly impossible to re-open the cartridge.


Place the other half of the cartridge on top. Insert the screws. Plug in your HDMI cables, then the USB hub cable, and finally insert the Super NES controller cord into the USB hub. Plug in the power micro USB cord. Once you see the boot sequence screen, you’re done with building the console.

The next step are setting up your controllers, configuring your RetroPie console, and installing the game ROMs.

Completed retro gaming console.

Step 4: Configure Your RetroPie Installation

Configure Your Controllers

After the RetroPie and EmulationStation splash screens have displayed, you will be required to configure your USB gamepad. Follow the easy on-screen instructions. When you are done pressing and holding down all the buttons, press the OK button.

RetroPie game controller screen.

Configure Wi-Fi Password

Insert the keyboard USB cable in any available USB port (including the hub). In the menu carousel, select RETROPIE. Then choose WIFI. The pop-up screen may load slowly, but afterwards you will select CONNECT TO WIFI NETWORK. Find your preferred hotspot name, enter the password, and then wait for confirmation. Exit after you see that your connection is confirmed.

RetroPie wi-fi configuration screen.

Configuring the WIFI is a key step because it will give you flexibility to transfer ROMs. The next step below describes how to add ROMs to your novelty console.

Step 5: Adding ROMs

This is the last step before you’re ready to play video games. You have three options for loading ROMs: Wireless Transfer, USB Transfer, and USB Mounting.

Wireless Transfer

Wireless is the most convenient method. For this to work, your RetroPie console and computer must be connected to the same wi-fi network. Once your RetroPie console is configured for wi-fi, you can access the microSD card by opening Windows Explorer in Windows (or open Finder, then choose Go, then select Connect to Server in Mac) and typing “\\retropie” (or “smb://retropie” in Mac) in the location bar. Proceed to the retropie folder, then to roms, and finally select the folder that corresponds to the game system of your ROM(s). Once there, transfer your ROM file(s) to that destination folder.

When you’re done, disconnect from the RetroPie and then power on the console. After the EmulationStation splash screen loads and you’re back at the game system selection, the game console of the ROM(s) should be visible and selectable.

USB Transfer

Insert your empty USB drive into your computer and create a folder called retropie. Then eject the drive.

After you have configured the USB game pads, insert the USB drive into the RetroPie console (directly or via USB hub). Blinking activity will commence continually for up to a few minutes. If your USB stick doesn’t have a blinker, wait for five minutes and then remove it. Insert the USB back into your computer and access the retropie folder, then roms, and finally select the folder that corresponds to the game system of your ROM. Once there, transfer your ROM file(s) to that destination folder.

When you’re done, eject the USB drive and insert it into the RetroPie USB port (hub or direct). Blinking activity should commence again. Wait a couple of minutes after blinking has ceased, or wait five minutes and then remove the drive. Press the “Start” button, scroll to QUIT, and choose RESTART EMULATIONSTATION. After the splash screen loads and you’re back at the game system selection, the game console of the ROM(s) should be visible and selectable.

USB Mounting

The third option occupies one of the hubs, but represents the best solution. USB game play is faster than from the microSD card. When using the USB mount option, the console utilizes the files and configurations on the USB drive instead of the on-board storage card. Principle advantage is speed, but USB is also less susceptible to data corruption. The steps are similar to the USB transfer method.

Insert your empty USB drive into your computer and create a folder called retropie-mount. Then eject the drive.

After you have configured the USB game pads, insert the USB drive into the RetroPie console (directly or via USB hub). Blinking activity will commence continually for up to a few minutes. If your USB stick doesn’t have a blinker, wait for five minutes and then remove it. Insert the USB back into your computer and access the retropie-mount folder, then roms, and finally select the folder that corresponds to the game system of your ROM. Once there, transfer your ROM file(s) to that destination folder.

When you’re done, eject the USB drive and insert it into the RetroPie USB port (hub or direct). Blinking activity should commence again. Wait a couple of minutes after blinking has ceased, or wait five minutes and then remove the drive. Press the “Start” button, scroll to QUIT, and choose RESTART SYSTEM. The boot sequence will re-occur. After the splash screen loads and you’re back at the game system selection, the game console of the ROM(s) should be visible and selectable.

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